Friday, December 02, 2016

We're Ready for Revision Pre-Flight: 10 Self-Editing Tips

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Even if you love revising (like me), the thought of diving into a revision can be overwhelming. If you don't enjoy doing it, it can be downright soul crushing. Where do you start? What do you look for? How do you know when you're done?

To help make the process easier, here are my top ten tips to give you a place to start, a map to follow, and a guide to get you through your revision.

1. Remember: It’s all about the story. 

Anything goes in a first or even second draft, but once the serious editing starts, you have to be ruthless to bring out the best novel you can from your draft. A well-written scene that slows the pacing or does nothing to advance the story doesn't belong, no matter how much you like it (and we've all been there). Check each scene against the core conflict, character development, or character arc and make sure it advances one of them in some way, no matter how small. If you can't bear to cut the scene, then try looking for ways to make that scene serve the story in some fashion. Sometimes all it takes it a little tweak or an added detail to get the scene back on track.

2. Edit in stages.

Trying to edit the entire manuscript at once can feel like there's too much to do, but editing smaller sections are easier to manage. Edit in stages, focusing on one thing at a time--perhaps it's chapter by chapter or scene by scene, or searching for all adverbs or passive verbs. Whatever you choose to check, take it a step at a time and make the process bite-sized instead of too big to swallow.

(Here's more on creating an editorial map)

3. Check your character goals and motivations

One of the most common reasons a scene doesn't work is a lack of goals, conflict, or stakes. Characters without strong goals and motivations driving the story lead to weak stories. Make sure every character is acting with purpose, and not simply doing what the plot tells them to. Sometimes the fix is easy, and one line will make the goal or motivations clear, while other times you might need to figure it out yourself first.

4. Check your character and story arcs

Novels build the story scene by scene, creating story arcs that tie the pieces together. If those scenes aren't moving the story, your pacing can grind to a halt. Are all the steps in the character or story arcs leading toward the exciting climax or do storylines go astray? Do characters grow or are they the same at the end as they were at the beginning? Arcs that advance and grow both story and character give the sense that the novel is progressing, which helps keeps readers interested.

(Here's more on creating story arcs)

5. Make sure the stakes are dire. 

Stakes are vital to holding reader attention and keep them wanting to know what happens next. Make sure your protagonist has a lot to lose if they don’t solve their problem. While death might seem like the ultimate stake, a life in jeopardy is more often a weak stake, as readers know the protagonist won't die. Instead, look for consequences that affect the protagonist personally, and are risks that could actually befall the character.

6. Separate characters from sounding alike. 

It’s easy to switch who says what during revisions, so make sure your characters all have individual voices and mannerisms--especially your main characters. If you can’t tell who is speaking by how they say it, you might want to tweak further.

(Here's more on creating different character voices)

7. Know your weak spots. 

We all have words we like to overuse or weak areas we know we'll need to strengthen. Accept what your weak areas are and work toward improving those skills. For common crutch words (those words you use far too much even though you know you shouldn't), create a list to help you go through them one by one and edit what doesn't need to be there.

8. Getting from here to there. 

Bad transitions can leave a reader confused, so make sure you switch smoothly and clearly when changing scenes, locations, and point-of-view-characters. Also keep an eye out for scenes starting in a new location without any sense of setting. It's easy to forget those critical grounding details in a new scene.

(Here's more on moving from scene to scene)

9. Bury the backstory. 

Backstory creeps in on a first draft all the time, because we’re often still trying to figure it out ourselves. Look for those sneaky bits and find a way to include the information in ways that don’t stop the story. If you can’t slip it in seamlessly (or close to it), cut it.

10. Don’t be afraid to cut.  

A lot of unnecessary information finds its way into a story because we’re uncertain if what we mean is getting across. Trust your reader to get it, and don’t beat them over the head when it’s clear what’s going on.

How do you feel about revision? What are some of your "must do" revisions tips?

Looking to improve your craft? Check out one of my books on writing: 

In-depth studies in my Skill Builders series include Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means), and Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It). My Foundations of Fiction series includes Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for plotting a novel, and the companion Plotting Your Novel Workbook, and my Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series, with step-by-step guides to revising a novel. 

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

As J.T. Hardy, she write urban fantasy for adults. The first book in her Grace Harper series is Blood Ties.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure and the companion Plotting Your Novel Workbook. Her Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series offer step-by-step guide to revising a novel. Her Skill Builders series includes Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), and Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means).   
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  1. Aside from critters and maybe a beta reader or two, my "must do" steps include a round of searching for junk words and repeated phrases with the aid of software, and a round of reading my draft aloud, highlighter in hand.

  2. These are all great tips. Sometimes I do a revision focusing on one main weakness, like character count. Or cutting out unnecessary words using your list of words to avoid (though you can't always not use them). And I'm being committed to not being afraid to cut unnecessary scenes. I think fear of doing that resulted in more revisions than necessary of my first (learning) manuscript.

  3. I'm revising right now (actually just finishing up). And I know there will be a couple more drafts to go, but all of this is good!
    Great post!

  4. Elizabeth Dunn2/01/2012 3:52 PM

    Great easy points to follow. Thanks Janice. My question is when to get beta readers in? When the whole thing's finished? I've heard some author's shooting off chapters to read as they are written? I wouldn't feel confident doing that until I am 100% sure how the plot's playing. Are readers just for micro-criticisms? And a critique group for macro? Joe, Natalie, Susan have you had your WIP out to betas already even as you are revising?

  5. Rewrites and revisions are like setting a broken leg - absolutely necessary and yet so very painful. Unfortunately they last much much longer. :P

  6. Elizabeth, in my mind, Critters are people who read my manuscripts in small bursts and give me detailed feedback on issues from small to big, and Beta Readers are people who get the whole manuscript once it's complete, read it from beginning to end, and give me thoughts on "big picture" issues. But I'm sure that's not universal or anything. Critters can help me spot when I've run off course, but I don't like to give the same material to the same person to read more than once, because they can't then come to it with a fresh mind--they can't "unknow" things I may have revealed in an earlier draft. So that's why I think it's worthwhile to have people who can read at both stages of the process.

  7. Joe, I have a few friends who read aloud, and they say it's very helpful. I might have to try it myself.

    Natalie, I love revision focus. I've found that very helpful myself. It's too easy to get caught up in something else and miss stuff. Grats on cutting those scenes!

    Susan, thanks! Good luck :)

    Elizabeth, it's really up to you and what you want. Some writers don't want any feedback until they work it all out themselves, others like input from the start. I have two groups I work with. One is an in-progress group that helps with macro issues and brainstorming as I write that first draft, the other is a finished and polished group that tears into the whole piece at macro and micro levels once it's as good as I cam make it. I have a nice mix of betas that look at a wide variety of issues. If you know what type of feedback you want, you can find folks to offer that.

    Amelia, they can be. I do enjoy them, but I know so many who don't. And then there are those books that you want to set fire to, even if you DO like revisions. (I'm look at you Blue Fire)

  8. I'm revising now - my focus - cutting unnecessary words, using specific verbs, adding emotions and description to scenes. I've switched some scenes around and have cut some. One thing that makes cutting easier is the word document that I keep called "Cut scenes." I cut and past what I want to remove and keep it there. That way, if I want to restore a scene or use it elsewhere, I haven't lost my hard work.

    Have a blessed day.

  9. Wow, this is great! I'm saving this post for when I get to revisions, which will be pretty soon. :) I also love revising and editing. It's terribly hard for me to read anything without tweaking it.

  10. Elizabeth Dunn2/02/2012 2:10 AM

    Thanks Joe and Janice for the info. Like the idea of the Critters!

  11. Heather, the cut scene file is a lifesaver. I do that myself. Makes it a lot easier to cut.

    Kaitlin, same here :)

    Elizabeth D, most welcome! Critters was very helpful to me when I first started putting my work out there.

  12. While editing the latest draft of my WIP, I cut a whole subplot that wasn't working out, about 10,000 words in total. I really liked those scenes, and I think it would have been harder to delete them if I hadn't put the manuscript aside for a couple of months before editing it. I think creating that distance helped me approach the story with a fresh eye.

  13. Wendy, setting a book aside between drafts is so helpful for exactly those reasons. Crit groups are good for that, since they take the book away from you for a while. Grats on cutting that subplot!

  14. Janice, thanks for another great article! Every time I read your posts I come away with something I can use in my own work. Thank you!

    Concerning your question, one of the things I've found works for me--and this is perhaps similar to your #2 point--is ... how to put this. I try not to backtrack.

    It used to be I'd go through my manuscript, notice something needed fixing and right then I'd go fix it. That's fine, but it made me lose the flow of the piece. It was harder to keep the entire story in my head and I'd wonder--oh, was that the version before I changed things or ...

    Anyhow, I've adopted the rule-of-thumb: NO BACKTRACKING! I go through my manuscript and note the changes that need to be made and then, after I've gone through the entire thing, I'll then dig in and make the changes.

    Cheers! :)

  15. Hi Janice. One of my achilles heels (aside from using cliches like that!) is over-using phrases such as "he gulped/swallowed/cringed/winced/exhaled heavily/shuddered/tensed/raised his eyebrows..." And I have hearts pounding/pummelling/racing all over the place. But I struggle to find good alternative ways of describing characters' reactions. How do you deal with this? What's the alternative? Thanks, Bron

  16. Karen, aw, thanks! I feel the same way about your blog. I'm with you on the no backtracking. I ignored that rule on my last novel and regretted it. I never got anywhere (except frustrated) Great tip!

    Bron, I ignore then on a first draft and use them as placeholder words. They're good to let me put down whatever emotion or reaction I need, then later I can search for them and take the time to revise.

    For example, "he gulped" is probably there to show fear or nervousness, so I think about other way I can show that. Maybe a little internalization will work, or another physical tick. If gulped is the perfect word, I'll leave it.

    This is the second time in a week I've gotten this question, so I think a blog post to go into it more is a good idea. :) Thanks for giving me Friday's post!

  17. That would be fab, Janice. I write romantic suspense so I struggle to come up with 1001 ways to describe fear and attraction.

  18. I'm finding that I have to do two deletion runs before I start revising. I'm a pantser, so junk gets into the story, and sometimes it gets in the way of the revision. The first pass to get rid of scenes that were a good idea at the time, but don't really fit. The second pass is to get rid of what I call "flotsam" -- bits and pieces that come into the story everywhere but doesn't add anything but clutter. When I took Holly Lisle HTRYN course, I thought I had all frankenscenes, and I was pulling out my hair because it was sooo bad. Then I discovered it was flotsam and just needed to be deleted. The course is actually one of the reasons I do the edits first. It was very hard sorting out the story with all the clutter.

  19. Linda, I love that. Not only the flotsam, but the "good idea at the time" scenes. That's such a great idea to separate them like that. Good scenes that don't work with the story are probably some of the hardest to cut, because they often work on they own, but not in the bigger story.

  20. Thanks for re-posting this. Very timely for me, Janice. I just finished reading my ms (on paper--first time in awhile) and couldn't believe how many times I used the word "just" and told right after I showed something. Hoping to cut down a major amount of words.

  21. I'm getting ready to begin to commence to think about revisions now, so this post is timely.
    After revising and before sending to bata readers or editors, I do a read through. I have found reading my mss out loud difficult because I keep stopping to change things. I use a tip I read a while back. I print out a hard copy, get my red gel pen, then open the mss on my computer and have the computer read it to me. Apple's "Alex" does a good job (though he doesn't pause enough between paragraphs). It works out well to listen as I follow along on the hard copy.